J. S. Birks and C. A. Sinclair, Arab Manpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980).

Stace Birks and Clive Sinclair, two British economists now attached to the World Bank, have done an extremely impressive job in compiling this first comprehensive guide to the labor market in the Arab world. The thoroughness of their data and the detail of their argument conceal the difficulty which amassing such rapidly changing statistics involves; the material they provide on the 18 Arab states will be of immense assistance to all concerned with analyzing migratory flows, class formation and social change in the Middle East. Birks and Sinclair argue that the growing inequalities in the Arab world, between oil-exporting and labor-exporting states, may have explosive political consequences in the future. They provide convincing and pessimistic accounts of the manner in which, from the perspective of the labor market, the opportunities for development based on oil are being wasted.

Within their own terms of reference, there are a few things to criticize. One can doubt if the majority of those in South Yemen who want to emigrate have already done so. Their account of Bahrain omits discussion of the government’s policy of Bahrainization, or of the impact of Bahrain’s partial replacement of Beirut. The data base they use, 1975 figures, came too early to encompass what may turn out to be the largest migration of all, that of Egyptians to Iraq, where by 1980 up to two million were working as migrants.

The real problem with the book is that it does not tell us more, because it operates within a “technicist” labor studies framework. There is nothing on the living and working conditions of the migrants and workers, nothing on forms of resistance and organization, on wage levels, or on the labor laws and practices, or nationality laws, to which Arab workers are subjected. Nor do they give sufficient attention to the attempts being made by some Arab governments—Algeria, South Yemen, Tunisia—to counter the negative effects of uncontrolled migration. Their introductory and concluding thesis, that current trends in migration may lead to political upheaval, remains detached from the rest of the analysis and somewhat unconvincing: It is perhaps more likely that migration from country to town within single states will be the basis of future political tensions, rather than migration between states. It was the former kind of migration which underlay the Iranian revolution.

Fred Halliday

L. S. Stavrianos, Global Rift (New York: William Morrow, 1981).

Stavrianos combines a clear and lively expository style, a finely controlled moral passion, a firm theoretical understanding of the processes shaping the global capitalist economy, and a prodigious amount of information about every region of the Third World. The basic proposition of Global Rift asserts that:

the underdevelopment of the Third World and the development of the First World are not isolated and discrete phenomena. Rather they are organically and functionally interrelated…. The states of developedness and underdevelopedness are but two sides of the same coin.

In his generally insightful analysis of the general stages of Third World history, Stavrianos slips into a quasi-technological determinism. He perceives a direct correspondence between imperialism and technology, and here his argument is implausible and the evidence thin. Stavrianos advocates a developmental strategy based upon decentralization, mass participation, social equity and a food-first policy of maximizing production for local nutritional need prior to growing export crops. Well and good. But how can this come about in the absence of social revolution? The concluding chapter is much too hazy about this fundamental proposition, and out of step with the rest of the book.

—Tom Mayer

Unni Wikan, Life Among the Urban Poor in Cairo (trans. Ann Henning) (New York: Tavistock Publications, 1980).

This rare anthropological study of the conditions endured by the urban poor of Egypt between 1969 and 1972 offers a fascinating but highly personal glimpse of social relations among women in an environment of extreme deprivation. The author speaks frankly at the outset of her own attitudes toward “the filth and stench which permeate this environment.” Her revulsion, overwhelming at first, lingers throughout the book and establishes a disturbing distance between the author and the objects of her study.

The major faults of the work lie in its omissions. The brutality engendered by their material conditions cannot be questioned, but the author’s Hobbesian vision of the life of the poor extends to the totality of their social and cultural existence. Nowhere among the detailed reports of social and economic interactions among women, their friends, and families, do we find a single song, proverb, story or scrap of poetry. We are plunged into a wasteland whose inhabitants have been stripped of all vestiges of culture. For anyone familiar with the richness of Egyptian traditions, whether embodied in ostensibly religious or “secular” folk practices, this version is not very credible.

Wikan pays no attention to the history and wider social context of these women. Are they recent rural migrants to Cairo or residents of the city for generations? From the occupations of the men, we are able to place them as part of a casual underemployed labor force, living on the margins of the “official” economy. Wikan devotes several pages to the absence of political institutions accessible to the poor, and, at the same time, the establishment of a partial welfare system which should work to their benefit. Such superficial descriptions are inadequate in light of her major conclusion that people are locked into poverty, at least in part, by the dynamic of the larger society.

Wikan rejects Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” theory, which, in its crudest form, places the blame for their conditions on the poor themselves. She nonetheless resorts to occasional “cultural” explanations of poverty. Here we enter a dangerous realm of generalization: “Envy and gossip are general features of Egyptian culture”; “In all strata of Egyptian society, a person’s value seems to be measured to an overwhelming extent by the amount of material goods he/she owns.” Because the price of something is the only reflection of its value, she reports, poor women refuse to use the cheap birth control pill provided by government clinics, claiming that it has dangerous side effects. Recent revelations about the severe side effects of oral contraceptives—particularly among undernourished women using the high-dosage pills “dumped” in Third World countries and often found in official planning programs—substantiate their objections. By hastening to attribute their behavior to a destructive value system, Wikan belittles the very people she sought to portray sympathetically.

Judith Tucker

How to cite this article:

"Book Notes," Middle East Report 107 (July/August 1982).

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